Rings, Gestures, and Phallus Talismans: The Evil Eye and Ancient Ways to Ward Off Its Power
For over 5000 years people have worried that a look of envy or dislike would inflict injury, bad luck, or even death on the recipient. People would wear specific items of jewelry or other talismans to protect themselves from these events. One example of this was found in Croatia in the form of an eye-catching ring.
That ring dates to the 3rd century. It depicts either a rabbit or a mouse nibbling a flower (believed to be a sign of happiness) and an eye above the scene – a symbol meant to protect the wearer from misfortune. It was one of about 200 artifacts found in Vinkovci, a town in Croatia that predates Roman occupation. The accompanying ceramic items were dated from the 1st-6th century.
The ring meant to protect against the evil eye which was found in Vinkovci. ( pneymatiko)
One of the oldest known texts mentioning the evil eye is a clay tablet inscribed with prayer to ward off its effects. It was created by the Sumerians around 3000 BC. A similar prayer is still in use amongst many cultures around the world.
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However, the concept of an ‘evil eye’ may predate the written word. Many researchers suggest that 10,000-year-old drawings found on cave walls in Spain also depict symbols that were meant to defend individuals from the evil eye.
Ruby eye pendant from an ancient civilization in Mesopotamia. Adilnor Collection. (Danieliness/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Belief in the evil eye is a worldwide phenomenon, however it’s particularly strong in the Middle East, Central America, East and West Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and Europe - especially in the Mediterranean region. It also spread to Celtic regions of northern Europe and to the Americas (via European colonists and Middle Eastern immigrants). The tradition and concept of the evil eye can present itself somewhat differently in each culture.
Amulets against the evil eye from de Basque Museum of History of Science and Medicine. (Museomed/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The ‘evil eye’ is found in the Old Testament and Islamic doctrine. For example, Sahih Muslim, Book 26, Number 5427 presents a statement by Muhammad "The influence of an evil eye is a fact..."
‘El mal de ojo’ (The Evil Eye) (1859) by John Phillip. ( Public Domain ) Note the hand gesture of the Spanish gypsy who thinks she is being given the evil eye.
Numerous talismans have been created to ward off the curse of the evil eye. In many cultures, they are disks or balls with concentric blue and white circles, a blue or green eye on a hand, or other items which represent an eye.
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A collection of Nazar Amulets to protect against the evil eye. ( Public Domain )
Other protective measures have also been taken against the evil eye across cultures and time: blackening the face, especially near the eyes (for some Asian children) and eating alone or only with immediate family members (some Asian and African people believe their souls are especially defenseless while their mouths are open). Some cultures believe it is important to consume certain foods, use specific hand gestures, wear sacred texts, or display particular ritual drawings or objects for protection against the evil eye as well. In Roman times, the bearing of a large phallus image around one’s neck was also thought to protect from this type of curse –believing it would draw ‘the eye’s’ attention to the object rather than the wearer!
Attacking the evil eye: The eye is pierced by a trident and sword, pecked by a raven, barked at by a dog and attacked by a centipede, scorpion, cat and a snake. A horned dwarf with a gigantic phallus crosses two sticks. Greek annotation "KAI SU" meaning "and you (too)". Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. ( Public Domain )
Even though medical science shows the evil eye could not kill, centuries of deaths have been blamed on its curse. So-called witches in medieval Europe were often ‘identified’ and killed because they cast an angry glare at someone who later died. The British court was even so scared of the power of the evil eye that it forced accused witches to walk backwards into the courtroom.
Top Image: ‘Evil eye.’ Source: Dennis Skley/ CC BY ND 2.0